Jake Zollie Harper thought he might want to be a photographer, but it didn’t quite work out that way. A successful artist and craftsman, he left photography’s world of captured light for the light of the fire. “I’m a pyro,” Harper said. He’s one of SA’s top glassblowers, too.
Back in 1999 while he was studying fine art photography, Harper saw a guy blowing glass during a First Friday art walk, and his life changed. Mesmerized by the flame, Harper began dabbling with the ancient art of forming hot glass over fire, reading books on the subject and experimenting in his garage. There were few opportunities to study glassblowing in town, back then, and no YouTube instructional videos to watch, either.
To learn the craft, Harper traveled around the country to hot spots in the rising artisan movement, like Colorado, and to the studios of the Northwest, to work with experienced glass workers. He would help out in the shop for a while, then move on, looking for more knowledge. “I am still in contact with many of the glass artists I met then,” Harper said. “It’s a community.”
Harper recently built a new home for his business, Zollie Glass Studio, on South Presa. The large building is made of sheet metal — to reduce the fire risk — and equipped with vents, a glass kiln, and custom torches, or lamps, as they are called in the trade. A small showroom sits in front of Harper’s workspace. The new building also houses the shop of Reagan Johns, a woodworker who often works with Harper. Their collaborative sculptural installation “Airborn,” a collection of multi-colored glass and turned wood spore-like objects, is on view through September at San Antonio International Airport.
I stopped by Harper’s studio last week to see his setup and learn a bit about his practice. “The type of glassblowing, or glass art, I am doing here is lamp working, or flame working,” Harper said. All of the glass forming is done in the torch flame; Harper uses gravity and centrifugal force — spinning the glass — to coax different shapes from under the flame. “When you are working glass, only what is hot or viscous will move. So I take a little section and I swirl it one way, I take another section and swirl it the opposite way, using very small flames to get the pattern work, then reduce it or gather it back.”
He moves the glass along with paddles and forms that Harper said are like “extensions of your hands to shape the glass, hold the glass, help you along your way. It is akin to what your hands would be on a wheel throwing pottery.”
Lamp working uses tubes and rods of hard glass, or borosilicate, instead of the molten globs that traditional glassblowers gather up. An advantage to this sort of work is that while a team is needed to form soft glass in the old way, lamp workers can go practice their craft solo. The glass, also known by the trade name Pyrex, is used for scientific glassware like beacons and test tubes. It is strong, durable, and able to absorb heat. It also, said Harper, “sets up a little quicker, allowing you to achieve more intricate shapes, and takes color more vibrantly.”
A lot of Harper’s work is very functional. He designs and fabricates chandeliers for architects, and glass handles for cabinetmakers. He also makes goblets, shot glasses, bowls and cups, in addition to his purely sculptural glass art. So, is it art or design? “I consider it artwork, but it’s sometimes a thing you can pick up and use in your everyday life.”
Harper is using his new building as a public studio, and though he did not have the benefit of a traditional apprenticeship, he’s intent on transmitting glass-making craft knowledge to others. “A lot of glassblowers are very secretive, they covet their information,” he said. “But I am completely open — I love teaching. Every time I teach, I learn. I like having a place where I can house that.”•
1428 S Presa, Ste. 1
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